Trash On Lebanese Shores Shows Continued Pollution In Mediterranean
Eastern Mediterranean Sea seaboard plagued by 10 times the pollution as its western counterpart
A visit to the beach in Lebanon these days may be less than ideal given the mounds of trash washed-up on shore. In the nearby Gaza Strip, beach-goers literally will find themselves swimming in feces, whereas in Israel the more picturesque surroundings mask a similar problem.
Pollution in the Mediterranean Sea is by no means a new phenomenon, but recent images circulating on social media of waste-covered beaches near Beirut have refocused attention on the issue.
“Now, every time we got to the beach, you try to swim and you have garbage floating all around,” Ziad Abichaker, CEO of the Lebanon-based technology company Cedar Environmental, told The Media Line. “Once you make the political decision to stop the pollution, then the pollution will stop.”
Lebanon’s extreme pollution can partially be linked to the mismanagement of landfills, many of which have exceeded their capacity, a reality which even sparked protests in 2015 when trash piled up on streets of the Lebanese capital.
After storms recently caused large amounts of mostly plastic debris to wash ashore, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri ordered a massive cleanup. But many contend that this is the equivalent of applying a Band-Aid to a gaping wound, as the country’s pollution crisis derives from a larger regional problem that not even an intensive cleaning effort would fully solve.
The Mediterranean Sea as a whole is plagued by contamination from industrial activity and littering, according to Dr. Asaf Ariel, Science Officer for the Israeli environmental non-profit EcoOcean. “The world is starting to realize that there is a problem in the way we live, the way we use resources,” he told The Media Line. “We actually poison ourselves. That’s what we do.”
With 21 countries and more than 475 million people living along its shores, the Mediterranean Sea is situated in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. An estimated 30 percent of global shipping traffic passes through its water, while the region accounts for about one-quarter of the annual trade related to international tourism.
Dr. Ariel added that due to the natural currents in the eastern Mediterranean, Israel, Lebanon and Gaza, for example, suffer from ten times the amount of pollution compared to countries like Spain and Morocco which are situated on the western coast. He further explained that it takes an estimated century for a single drop of water to complete the cycle of entering and exiting the Mediterranean via the Atlantic Ocean, meaning the process of natural filtration is very slow and thus largely ineffective at reducing levels of pollutants.
While the discourse currently revolves around Lebanon, other territories have their own related issues. Pollution along Gaza’s seashore has reached its highest level ever, rendering about half of all beaches in the Palestinian enclave unsuitable for swimming, according to Gaza’s Environmental Quality Authority.
“The main source of pollution in the Mediterranean Sea in the Gaza Strip is the discharge of untreated wastewater along the shoreline,” Dr. Kamal Elnabris, a biology professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, wrote in an email to The Media Line. “This is mainly due to the very low efficiency of wastewater treatment plants.”
In June of last year the issue intensified when Israel was called on by the Palestinian Authority to stop supplying its rival Hamas, which controls Gaza, with electricity, causing treatment plants to shut down.
“Ten years ago, the government in Gaza used to refine the waste-water and then throw it in the sea. With the electricity issue, they started throwing it directly without the needed treatments,” Bassem Abu Daqqa, a Gaza-based school teacher explained to The Media Line. “Almost the whole sea is dirty and full of big dark spots. It is the only place to chill and clear your head and for the last two years we haven’t even be able to go there.”
Dr. Elnabris said seawater quality also is impacted by Israeli security measures that prevent repairs to, and the expansion of, existing plants. Littering and the dumping of solid waste have likewise contributed to the emergence of several antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the water.
“The situation in Gaza in general is horrible. You cannot compare what’s happening in Gaza to what’s happening in Israel or even Lebanon,” Dr. Ariel of EcoOCean said. “They’re in deep shit…literally.”
By contrast, Israel’s coastline has improved in recent years due to government regulations, but the presence of microscopic debris continues to be a problem.
Noam van der Hal, a doctoral student at the University of Haifa, told The Media Like that microplastics—fine particles of debris eroded down from larger plastic waste—have harmful effects when ingested by marine life such as fish, which, in turn, are consumed by humans.
Currents can cause pollution from neighboring Lebanon and Gaza to seep into Israel’s territorial waters but Dr. Ariel insists the country’s problems stem from self-made pollution and the general public’s apathy toward environmental issues.
“The attitude of people toward littering is problematic here [in Israel],” Dr. Ariel concluded, “and everyone shares responsibility for this. “
(Dina Berliner is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)